Autism Annex: The STAR Support Podcast

Lessons Learned: 2020-2021

May 02, 2021 STAR Autism Support Season 1 Episode 3
Autism Annex: The STAR Support Podcast
Lessons Learned: 2020-2021
Chapters
Autism Annex: The STAR Support Podcast
Lessons Learned: 2020-2021
May 02, 2021 Season 1 Episode 3
STAR Autism Support

The 2020-2021 school year presented a host of challenges for teachers, students, and families alike.  On this episode we explore the ways that people have persevered in spite of mounting difficulties, and we identify opportunities for growth and improvement that have emerged.

Join host Johnandrew Slominski and guests  Lillian Gonzalez, Nate Marsden, and Alicia Balfrey.

Show Notes Transcript

The 2020-2021 school year presented a host of challenges for teachers, students, and families alike.  On this episode we explore the ways that people have persevered in spite of mounting difficulties, and we identify opportunities for growth and improvement that have emerged.

Join host Johnandrew Slominski and guests  Lillian Gonzalez, Nate Marsden, and Alicia Balfrey.

 

Johnandrew Slominski (host): 

Hello, and welcome back to Autism Annex: the STAR Support Podcast.  I’m Johnandrew Slominski.  Today’s episode looks both backward and forward: we discuss the challenges of teaching and learning during the global pandemic of 2020-2021, and we look at the many opportunities for growth that we have been afforded during this difficult time.  

 

I am especially grateful to my guests for taking the time to reflect on their experiences, and to offer perspectives on the world of special education going forward.  Today, you will hear from conversation between me and Lillian Gonzalez, Alicia Balfrey, and Nate Marsden—all teaching professionals with a combined experience of over half a century.  Thank you for joining us.  

 

Lillian, welcome to Autism Annex, and thank you for joining us today.  Would you please introduce yourself so that listeners can get to know you better?

 

Lillian Gonzalez (guest):

Sure, um, my name is Lillian, and I’m currently working as a special educator at AHRC middle-high school.  I have been working with children on the autism spectrum for approximately 24 and a half years.

 

JS:

Lillian, you’ve seen so much over the last 24 and a half years, and congratulations by the way.  What changed in the school year of 2020, and how did you have to adjust?

 

LG:

Well, initially, it was learning through a different modality.  Usually, how we work with our students is mostly in small groups and through discrete trial teaching, so now we were asking them to work using technology, and to attend to the teachers.  And, participate in the curriculum—so that was initially pretty challenging for them, and everyone else involved, but, they adapted rather quickly.  Faster than I anticipated, for sure!

 

JS:

And, as a teacher, how much time did you have to prepare for that new model of teaching and learning, and what sorts of adjustments did you have to make?

 

 

 

 

LG:

Right.  At first, for us teachers, we had to move quickly—we only had truly one day to get everything that we needed from our classrooms to bring home.  So, that was especially challenging.  We had one full day to learn the technology, and then one full day to transition from the LINKS curriculum to SOLS.  So that was a little challenging, and I would have to say a little scary at first because we weren’t sure how we were going to do all of these things.  We also had to reach out to the parents and try to figure out their schedules and see when we could schedule sessions for the kids and make sure that the kids would be able to use the technology, to be able to participate.

 

JS:

Now, at this sort of pivotal moment between teaching and learning in person and then teaching and learning remotely, there must have been some really difficult challenges that parents and families experienced.  Could you tell us a little bit about what you saw?

 

 

LG:

            Sure!  We had some parents that were essential workers, so that was difficult for them to create the time to be able to sit with their child during sessions, specifically with my students—they are high-support kids, so, they would meet every day and need a caregiver sitting next to them to help them attend and to help them respond.  And, there was also taking directions from somebody else on how to teach their child, which they were champs about.  In the beginning, it was uncomfortable for them—for us—to sit there and, “Oh, you know, you’re not doing this the right way, can we do something else?  Make sure you have some reinforcers…”. I know at first I felt slightly intimidated, so I’m sure that they also felt the same way.

 

JS:

And during this time of enormous transition, was there also a change in the dynamic between teachers and students and families?

 

LG:

Oh, absolutely.  I think, you know, it’s one thing to communicate through a communication book or through some kind of email, but um, we spent months, you know, looking at each other and talking to each other, and trying to overcome a lot of hurdles during instruction.  So, I think we just kind of built this really deep connection and also this mutual respect for each other that was, I feel, a lot deeper than in previous years, prior to the pandemic.

 

 

 

 

JS:

And in this process of deepening mutual respect, as you put it very eloquently, you must have seen a side of students and their home and family life in a way that was probably different from before.  Did parents and families see a sort of different perspective as well? 

 

LG:

Yes, absolutely.  Some of my parents, especially in work on functional routines, for instance having the kids washing dishes, having the kids vacuuming and doing household activities, the parents were pretty impressed, like, “Wow, you know, you could do this the whole time?  From now on you’re doing the dishes after dinner!  Or, we’re going to give you more chores!”  It was really nice to see that and to see the parents.  There was one particular family, and there were three of them, and they were tag-teaming the learning session.  It was pretty neat to see everybody, families coming together and helping out.

 

JS:

Lillian, you have clearly found a way through this pandemic to engage deeply with students as well as their families in a way that is unique and perhaps may not have been possible without some of the challenges we’ve seen this year.  What would you say to those who still have not yet found their stride?  Those teachers and students and families who are still experiencing a lot of the difficulties of the past and current year?

 

LG:

I think one important thing to mention is for any teacher out there, who is still struggling with remote instruction or any kind of hybrid learning model, I would say, hang in there.  And you know, pick the brains of other teachers that have made this whole thing work.  That’s what I’ve done.  I have a ton of experience but I’m still learning, and when I couldn’t figure out Zoom (laughs) or things that I needed to know, I sought help from my fellow teachers.  

 

And, to the families, you know, I would say, don’t give up: we are all in this together.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to your teachers, because chances are that they’ll be able to assist you with whatever it is that you need.  

 

For us, we were so lucky to have training, caregiver training, and caregiver videos, and all of these instructions.  So, it seemed like a really good thing.  And I think that’s why we got ahead of the game more so than other schools, and it was because we had all of these tools.  So, I would say to everybody: hang in there.

 

 

 

JS: 

If you’re just joining us, my guest has been Lillian Gonzalez, a teacher and autism specialist at AHRC in New York City.  Lillian, thank you for your time today.

 

LG:

            It’s been an honor.  Thank you so much.

 

JS:

My next guest, Nate Marsden, has worked in public education, particularly as an autism specialist, since 1999.  He is now a training specialist for STAR Autism Support, where he provides on-site consultation to teachers to implement evidence-based practicies.  Nate has a particular interest in advocacy for the needs of students, families, and educators, and he is engaged in ongoing work, especially with the Council for Exceptional Children, to influence local, state, and federal policy.

 

Nate Marsden, welcome to Autism Annex!

 

Nate Marsden (guest):

            Thanks for having me!

 

JS:

Nate, you’ve been actively involved in the Council for Exceptional Children, including serving on the Student Committee, the Program Advisory Committee, and the Maltreatment Policy Statement Workgroup.  What can you tell us about how the CEC has responded to the pandemic over the past year?

 

NM:

Sure.  Yeah, and so the Council for Exceptional Children is the largest organization dedicated to improving outcomes for students with exceptionalities, but also for the profession, for families as well.  And, I’ve been involved with them for about 14 years, and I do a lot of volunteer work with them; a lot of that revolves around advocacy and policy, and so I kind of keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening at local, state, and even the federal levels.  

 

They definitely had some suggestions or recommendations in response to the pandemic.  And some of those were really around continuing to use evidence-based strategies.  We know that we need to continue to provide education to all of our students.  Some of our students require specialized instruction, and it’s important that we continue to provide that to those students.  We knew that we needed opportunities still for students to be educated with their peers as much as possible, and as much as that’s been a challenge, it’s something that, you know, has come to the forefront of the conversation a lot, because the pandemic has really thrown a wrench into that.


 JS:

As you have been working with students and families and teachers over the past year, what have you observed as some of the largest challenges that have need to be overcome?

 

NM:

Across the board, you know, that’s been the biggest challenge, or at least the most obvious challenge, is how do we go from doing what we’ve done before, when that’s effective, and using some of those same strategies with the different format—with remote learning, as opposed to in-person.  Then, there are some other things, I think, that have come to light that maybe were issues before the pandemic, and I think that the pandemic kind of exacerbated some of those issues—things like equity to materials, access to materials, technology, equity in instruction, those kinds of things.  Things like the way we assess students.  With the pandemic, we started to realize, um, that the standardized assessments that we use kind of became the only measures, where typically we want to use multiple measures.  And, so, even there, we see kind of a disparity for students that would access those things pretty well normally, and those students that have historically had challenges with being assessed with using those kinds of tools.  So, that’s one of the big things, is just that it’s brought to light, I think, some of those disparities that already exist in education.

 

JS:

You’ve spent a significant portion of your career plugged into the early childhood side of things.  What can you tell us about the unique challenges, and maybe unique situations, that have been impacting that segment of the population?

 

NM:

Sure, yeah.  I’ve had conversations with a lot of early childhood teachers, some that I’ve worked with in the past, and some that I’ve met through consultation with STAR.  One of the challenges that they face is that there’s so much learning that takes place in play-based learning—teaching kids to communicate, to resolve conflict, and learn in those ways.  And so, looking at how do we do that virtually was really challenging for a lot of teachers.  And again, one advantage of some of this is that in early intervention, there’s a lot of collaboration with families, but even as early as pre-school we start to see that drop off a little bit.  And so, again, that increased and maybe enhanced collaboration with families—we saw that go up—and some of the strategies that we use at STAR, we were able to present that and share that with families so that not only are we continuing to address those developmental needs for children that age, but that their families kind of get a little bit of extra training and “know-how” in all of those things too.  

 

So, it goes back to what I was saying before: it’s good for all parties involved, but especially those children. 

 

JS:

You know, it seems almost easy at this point to look in retrospect at the specific instances of things that have gone wrong over the past years—whether that’s curriculum changes, or just day-to-day logistics.  But, zooming out to a little more of a broad perspective, I wonder: what sorts of other issues has the pandemic shed light on?  In other words, what sorts of things do we now recognize as being important that we may have missed prior to this really profound change?

 

NM:

I think for a lot of our students—and whether we’re talking about students with exceptionalities or other students—one thing that I know has been a challenge is looking at the whole child’s development over this time.  And so, that’s something I think important to keep in mind as we move forward, so we’re not just focusing on one or two things, but, what are the things we’re maybe overlooking?  As we’re looking at our checklist, or checking off boxes—and I don’t mean to make it sound cold—but sometimes we’re wanting to make sure we hit all of these things, but are we considering all areas of development?  

 

I’m not just talking about early childhood – I mean, that’s important to consider across that whole range of students that we’re working with.  Are they getting access to social emotional learning?  Are we addressing those needs?  Because especially in the time of the pandemic, we know that was a major concern, and is a concern, but we also knew before the pandemic that it was too.  So, again, a lot of the areas that maybe we didn’t do such a great job at addressing, when those were exacerbated by the pandemic—I’m hoping that those things being brought to light will continue to stick with educators and say, “You know what, that was important, and we need to keep doing those things.”

            

JS:

My guest, Nate Marsden, is a father, a film buff, a former special education teacher, and now a training specialist for STAR Autism Support.  Nate: thank you so much for a really engaging conversation today.  

 

NM:

            Likewise!  Thank you for having me.  I’ve really enjoyed it; thanks for the opportunity.  

 

 

 

 

 

JS:

My next guest is Alicia Balfrey, an autism training specialist with STAR Autism Support.  Alicia comes to us fresh from presenting for numerous education organizations about lessons learned from 2020, and opportunities moving forward.  

 

Welcome, Alicia, and thank you for joining us on Autism Annex.

 

Alicia Balfrey (guest):

            Thank you for having me. 

 

JS:

Alicia, would you begin by setting the stage for us?  Tell us a little bit about where we are now, and what the current thinking is when looking back at the past year of challenges.

 

AB:

Absolutely.  So, we’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the challenges that 2020 posed to us, and I think that we’re currently dealing with some of those challenges, but I think this is also a good opportunity for us to reflect on those challenges and turn those into lessons learned.  So, using those as opportunities not only for the 2021 school year, but also for just opportunities for school years to come.  And, I think that there is something unique about reflecting on these challenges, and I think a lot of us are eager to get back to whatever “normal” looks like, whatever the new normal is.  But at the same time, I think it’s, again, important to reflect on, well, what did we learn, and how can we use that moving forward, rather than just assuming that going back to whatever “normal” is with school.  We don’t want to just assume that fits the needs of all of our learners, because I think we did learn some really unique things that helped us understand our learners better.

 

JS:

Take us back, if you will, to February and March of 2020.  What was the mindset, and what was happening in classrooms around the country at that point?

 

 

 

AB:

You know, when schools were starting to close, I think that was a survival mode situation, where everyone’s like, “Okay, we don’t know how to deal with this right now, so we just need to close and reset, and have some time to regroup and think about things.”  That was a challenge—our students really depend on the consistency of being in school on a regular basis, and the consistency of receiving instruction that supports their needs.  

 

And we know that our classrooms—we have a lot of control over the environment, and the structure, and the schedule, and so when you have students that are moving back into the home setting for learning, it’s so hard to provide that same amount of structure and predictability that our students really thrive on.  And so, I think the change of learning setting was really difficult for our students, and change is difficult for our students as-is, and then change is hard for the adults too!  

 

So, I think teachers trying to wrap their minds around, “Okay, I have a teaching degree, I have a teaching license, and maybe I have years of teaching experience, but no one taught me how to do remote instruction, and no one taught me—I didn’t have a course in grad school on distance instruction.  So that was a very difficult change for teachers on how to figure out, “How do I still reach my students, and how do I continue that learning, when I don’t have my classroom and I’m not face-to-face with them?

 

And I think that families faced a lot of challenges too, because they, of course, had their worlds upended too, and school is a form of childcare for many families, and so having students at home and families having to deal with their work schedules and all of the other stressors that come with the pandemic—it just, I think, initially it was just this really frantic, “Well, we don’t know what to do, so we’re going to close,” but so many other challenges come from that.

 

JS:  

And from these many challenges, though, in our conversations, you’ve highlighted a number of really compelling opportunities that have also emerged.  What are some of those?

 

AB:

I think that one big opportunity that stands out to me is this opportunity to connect with families a little bit more.  When I was spending a lot of time in classrooms and working with teachers, one thing that I heard a lot was, “I wish I had more time with families, and I wish I had more of an opportunity to talk with parents and share my knowledge with them so that they can work on this stuff at home—we know that consistency between home and school is so important, but there was just never the time.”

 

And I think, again, that was perhaps a challenge related to the 2020 school year, but it’s a really unique opportunity to reflect on, “Okay, perhaps the challenges of 2020 highlighted the need to work with families, because they’re the ones doing some of the instruction with the kids at home, or they’re the ones working on those home routines with students.”  We spotlighted the need for that, and that’s something we can keep the spotlight on – that’s how we really continue learning for our students.  Teachers have students for a limited amount of time, and then they move on to other classrooms, or eventually our students transition into adulthood.  And so, I think that it’s really important that families and parents and caregivers are those lifelong educators for their children.  The more that we can continue that collaboration, continue that parent coaching and training piece, is just going to lead to those positive long-term outcomes with our students. 

 

JS:

As teaching and learning moved from an in-person model to very much a virtual environment, what role did you see technology beginning to play?

 

AB:

You know, technology, I think, provided a lot of hurdles for us to sort of  navigate, but at the same time provided a lot of opportunities.  Again, not just for us to connect with families meaningfully, but also for us to make sure our content for students is really dynamic and flexible to their learning needs.  

 

Again, I think maybe we’re used to teaching in classrooms, and we’re used to using a certain toolbox of instructional methods, but considering how to continue using technology even after this age of distance teaching, you know, I think that if we can hold onto technology as a way to provide that dynamic instruction to our students, again, it’s just going to help us reach more of our learners and more of their learning needs.  

 

Some of our students are really drawn to things like videos, and are really drawn to technology, and we like to focus on strengths and interests of our students.  And so, if they are already really bought into technology, hey why not use that as a teaching tool?  The other piece is too, I think, that even in our classrooms now, we are starting to see a lot more technology.  We see tablets and computers in classrooms; a lot of teachers have smart boards these days, or other ways to display digital information, and so it’s kind of interesting to reflect on, “Okay, if we have all these digital tools that we’ve been using for the 2020 school year, how do we continue using those in the classroom?  I can present my materials on something like a smart board, or with a tablet with my students; those materials are already made, and I can still use them even for an in-person environment that now I’m engaging my learners in other ways and in some ways, really playing to their strengths—because a lot of our kids are really good with technology.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

JS:

Now, you mention integrating technology into teaching and learning in a way that is really effective.  What about for hybrid learning, in which teaching and learning is taking place in a combination of remote and in-person environments? 

 

AB:

Hmm, yeah.  Absolutely.  And again, I think that hybrid piece as well, again we still have students who are engaging in a hybrid instruction, we have to continue relying on technology.  But in person, it’s been really exciting to see teachers getting creative with, “Okay, I’ve been using my SOLS digital curriculum materials for remote instruction, but hey—I really liked this lesson plan, I really liked this group activity, or we really liked this videos, or these other supports.  So, I’m going to use those in my classroom with my students, and it’s still going to be high-quality instruction. 

 

JS:

Looking toward the future, and the fall of 2021 and the dawn of a brand-new school year, what are you looking forward to the most?

 

AB:

I will say I’m personally excited to see students again.  I really miss being around students, and around educators, and so I look forward to being able to be in person again.  As rewarding as it’s been to continue to support in a virtual format, I really miss being in the classroom and seeing the students.  But another thing that I’m looking forward to seeing more of, just in general in education, is this focus on the way that we support our students does not have to be one size fits all, and again, the name of the game in special education is individualizing those supports, but really focusing in on and saying, “How can we do that in a really meaningful way, by using technology, by connecting with caregivers, by differentiating our instruction, by being really flexible with our programming?”  I just think that now we have a lot more ideas for how to reach those unique needs of all of our learners.

 

JS:

Alicia Balfrey is a Eugene, Oregon-based autism training specialist with STAR Autism  Support.  Alicia: thank you so much for spending time with us today on Autism Annex.

 

AB:

This has been such a fun experience—I’m very excited to have been involved, and I’ve been really enjoying all of the episodes, so I’ll be listening.

 

 

 

 

JS:

And remember to subscribe to Autism Annex to receive updates and future episodes.  And, as always, you can find us online on Instagram @STARautismsupport, and on twitter @SAS_Autism.  

 

Thank you for listening to Autism Annex: The STAR Support Podcast.  We’re glad to have you with us.  Thanks as well to all of my guests today: Lillian Gonzalez, Nate Marsden, and Alicia Balfrey.  

 

Autism   was developed by Star Autism Support.  Katia Mrdjan does work behind the scenes, Sheila Magee provides consultation, and Porter the dog is this episode’s animal mascot.  I’m Johnandrew Slominski. Until next time, take good care of yourself—and one another.